Overworked and Understaffed: The Shifting Landscape in Local Prosecutor Caseloads
Contributing Author: Nelson O. Bunn, Jr., Executive Director, NDAA
Prosecutors around the country are working hard to keep communities safe, but as a shifting landscape in the profession occurs, what happens when the amount of work in a prosecutor’s office changes without any subsequent change in funding for staffing levels? Questions about appropriate caseload levels is easily one of the top three media inquiries and member requests we currently receive at the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and put simply, there is no straightforward answer. While offices around the country are eager to cite national standards for staff caseloads at both the felony and misdemeanor levels, unfortunately, this data is not easily available.
And here is why.
Each state has its own unique and nuanced set of laws which underscores the value of self-governance, but also creates barriers to implementing uniform guidance to prosecutors around the country on what their staffing levels and structures should look like to be effective in their duties. Last year in Virginia, state budget language was adopted that mandates localities to provide one additional prosecutor for every 75 body-worn cameras deployed in a given jurisdiction. This was an effort to address the increasing volume of digital evidence in prosecutors’ offices. This is one example of an individual state effort to address shifting challenges in technology’s ability to add data to a case and is aimed at ensuring a prosecutor’s office is equipped to handle emerging trends.
Specialized Units and Organizational Structure
To implement best practices in prosecution and continually innovate, prosecutors have rightfully created specialized units in their offices such as Conviction Integrity Units, Human Trafficking Units and Special Victims Units. These units sometimes require specialized training, additional years of experience or increased funding to adequately provide staff and resources to serve their intended goals. Often, these specialized responsibilities are in addition to other office responsibilities, compounding the workload and cramming more work into already stretched schedules.
Office structures also play a role in staffing levels needed to effectively and efficiently run a prosecutor’s office. Two main structures are typically found in a prosecutor’s office: vertical and horizontal prosecution. In a vertical prosecution structure, a prosecutor is assigned a case at intake and sees it through the entire process to any potential appeal in a case. In horizontal prosecution, the various phases of the process are broken up into areas such as preliminary hearings, the trial or the appeal process where prosecutors are assigned to individual roles and stick with that portion of the process for each case that is taken by an office. It becomes easier to see that when some offices have these specialized units and others do not that workload comparisons get tricky. The same with trying to set standards when offices are structured differently, and prosecutors’ actual daily work can be particularly nuanced depending on the role they are assigned.
The discussion around prosecutor caseloads may in fact be a misnomer in that it fails to incorporate a critical element of a prosecutor’s office: community engagement. Usually, we talk about a prosecutor’s “caseload”, when in reality, we should talk about a prosecutor’s “workload”. There is a difference. Caseloads could solely mean individual cases a prosecutor handles at any given time, which likely doesn’t account for any managerial responsibilities or initiatives they participate in to engage with their communities. Workload takes into account community basketball tournaments, job fairs, neighborhood meetings, church events and other initiatives offices engage in with their communities to promote accountability, transparency and reflect the values of their constituents. This aspect of the discussion is particularly hard to capture in any data or metrics.
So Now What?
While these are just a few of the factors to consider when evaluating staffing levels in a prosecutor’s office, there is no easy answer. Prosecutors, however, can be encouraged by the fact they are not alone in their need to know more about the factors impacting their staffing levels and what steps can be taken to further examine a path forward in their office. The good news is that stakeholders with knowledge and insight are starting to come together to discuss potential solutions to address the pre-existing, and increasing, challenges with workloads.
This spring, the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, with support from the Center for Advancing Opportunity and the Charles Koch Foundation, will host a forum to discuss these challenges and ways in which collaboration among stakeholders is essential. NDAA has been invited to participate. Additionally, NDAA is collaborating with CNA Corporation on a short concept paper examining the potential of a workforce analysis to compare the number of hours needed to effectively handle the average caseload of local prosecutors’ offices with the current staff’s available time. Movement is happening and NDAA is proud to be at the forefront of the discussion to assist prosecutors in their daily mission to ensure the effective and efficient administration of justice.